B&W picture of woman looking out on a lake on a cloudy, cold day

The Power of Our Perceptions When Suffering From Chronic Pain

B&W picture of woman looking out on a lake on a cloudy, cold day

I am often asked, “What helped you to get better, to overcome pain?”            

There are many things from a healthy diet, to yoga, stretching and exercising, to certain medical treatments like prolotherapy. Those helped me physically. What helped me emotionally cope with chronic pain, and still does, all started many years ago at an event that taught me about the power of our perceptions. I almost did not attend because I knew that one hour of laying on the floor instead of my bed, would cause tumultuous muscle spasms and increased pain; but, I am grateful courage came forth that night. It started me on a path of deep healing. 

That eventful night, I attended a Dharma talk in a run-down, white house in San Francisco. Perfectly centered between gold and red tapestries that cascaded down the front walls of a small room sat a monk whose serene expression contrasted the sharp, prickly hairs that stood erect on her shaved head. Her serenity brought me a glimpse of peace to which I and the other nineteen attendees hungrily clung.

The Dharma talk’s topic was Suffering. I knew this word well, as do most people. Its meaning is understood through experience that encroaches upon us by one means or another. To me, chronic pain was synonymous with suffering.

 “We are the cause of our suffering,” the monk told us matter-of-factly and gave an example: Imagine standing in a long line, and a stranger pushes you aside to get ahead. What is your first reaction? Do you yell at the person or make sly comments out of anger and impatience while she stands in front of you? Do you envision ways to get back at her for taking your spot and making you wait longer? Do you politely tell her that you were already there? “Or,” offered the monk, “do you first consider the possibility that this person may have been distracted by her own thoughts, not even realizing that she jumped ahead in line, or perhaps, she is in a hurry for a very important reason and it is okay to let her go before you?”

Then, she asked us:

  • Which reactions would create anger, impatience, and tension—more suffering?
  • Which reactions would not create suffering?
  • Do you think that the situation created your emotional suffering, or was it your thoughts and reactions to the situation?

 “How we perceive a situation affects our emotions and thoughts,” was the wisdom that the monk shared with us that night. 

   

Does Pain or Our Perceptions of Pain Cause Our Feeling Victimized? 

When I went home that night, I wondered how the Dharma talk pertained to me. I first thought that the stranger the monk talked about was my pain. Pain was a ferocious entity, a parasite that cruelly sucked so much life from me, cutting me off from the world. I was furious with pain. It exhausted me. It exhausted my hopes. I tried to control it, but my inability to do so resulted in feeling victimized—conquered. I resented this, thusly, I feared and rejected pain more.

Yet, later that night after the Dharma talk, I realized the stranger, which I originally thought was pain shoving and pushing me aside, was actually me. I had become my own victim. The pain was not destroying me; my thoughts, beliefs, perceptions of and emotional reactions to pain had been making me feel victimized. As we enter experiences with certain beliefs, we in turn, create a reality to validate these beliefs. Reality, or more literally, our perception of reality, is what we make it. The meaning I gave suffering, and the story about my suffering on which I ruminated, caused my suffering.

Although I hated pain and battled and feared it, I began to recognize that I did not actually hate and fear pain itself, I hated and feared feeling pain. I was not afraid of pain, I was afraid of suffering and what I emotionally identified with the concept of suffering. It is not emotional or physical pain, but the aversion to pain that caused my suffering. I had created a world of rejecting experiences (rejecting the sensation of pain, my body, myself). How could I not feel anything but enormous fear, depression, and loneliness? It was I who had been taking away my power, not pain.

Pain can feel overwhelmingly powerful, physically, mentally, and emotionally; however, just as our mind can play a large part in our suffering, it can also free ourselves from suffering. Our perceptions are subjective, not fixed. We can change our thoughts, perceptions, attitude, beliefs, and our outlook. 

 

That night, the Buddhist lecture initiated my process of learning that when we look through the keyhole into our life, it is important to detach from thoughts, desires, emotions, fears, actions and reactions. When we let go of unhealthful thoughts and reactions, we create space for positive thoughts, open-mindedness, adaptable thinking, and joy. 

I never want to limit my life, but rather, enhance my life with a reality of possibilities.

picture of a stuffed brown dog on bed laying down

A Special Gift for Someone in Pain – A Confidant

picture of a stuffed brown dog on bed laying down

Two friends once gave me something I didn’t realize I needed. It was small, brown, and fluffy. Its eyes looked sad and longing, just as I felt that day. 

My friends, Reme and Sara, gave me a special gift, a stuffed animal. I remember them timidly standing at my feet, searching for words to say as they stared at me, weak, disheveled, and semiconscious in my hospital bed. Reme reached her arms out to me and handed me a soft, brown stuffed dog. I took the dog in my arms and then blacked out once again from pain. When I awoke, I saw long, fluffy ears resting on the coarse hospital bed sheets on top of me, and two eyes staring directly at me, silently asking, how are you? I really don’t know, I replied. It’s eyes stared at me as if waiting…expecting for me to divulge each and every word of fear, will power, hope, anxiety, and despair that comes when experiencing chronic pain.

I named my stuffed dog, Jakey, after my friend’s real dog, and it has never left my bed. Jakey is the only one that knows the extent of my physical, and thus, emotional pain throughout the years. He has seen me screaming in pain and blacking out in the hospital; he has allowed me to hold him so tightly he would suffocate if he were real. He spent endless days and nights silently listening to my fears, hopes, laughs, and cries, always looking at me with his big eyes as if saying, tell me more. Jakey, my confidant. I burdened him with all my tumultuous feelings and thoughts as I lay in bed day after day, year after year, in pain. And the nights I needed to be held, I held him.

I never thought such a simple gift could be so profound. What convinced my friends at that time to buy a stuffed animal for me, a 26-year-old, I will never know. I lost touch with them years ago, but their gift is forever with me. Their gift has filled a void within me throughout all my hospital stays and all the years that followed in which I felt misunderstood, angry, scared, confused, alone, and exhausted.

We all need someone–or something–to talk to; someone who listens to us without judgment, and sometimes, without a reaction or response; someone to whom we can tell everything without trying to leave out parts of our story. With Jakey, I never worried what he might think, if  he would suffer hearing my sufferings, or if he would think I complained too much or clung to irrational hopes and desires. Jakey was my journal.

It is 19 years later. I am 46-years-old now. Jakey’s resting place, night and day, is still in my bed. He holds all my memories, my trauma, my pain. He knows my despair. He knows my struggles. He knows my courage and story of recovery, and my flare ups. He knows me better than anyone else. He knows my truths.

My six-year-old daughter knows Jakey. She is thrilled that I share a love for stuffed animals as she does. She giggles and kisses Jakey on the special nights I give him to her, and she gives me one of her stuffed animals to sleep with in return. When she is sick or having a bad day, I tuck Jakey in her arms. Jakey is healing.

 My daughter is too young to understand my experiences with pain and the meaning behind my love for my one, special stuffed dog, but when I see her talk to her stuffed animals, repeatedly hugging them so tightly that the stuffing thins, dragging them everywhere with her until the material starts ripping, and pouting when she can’t take one or two or three into the store with her, I think, perhaps a part of her does understand.

Sometimes the best gift that says “I care” is something as simple as a stuffed animal. It is something that we can cling to knowing that we are never as alone as we may think. Behind that stuffed animal is the person who unexpectedly gave it to us.

Joy

Podcast: Sharing My Experiences with Pain and Healing

In this podcast, I share with Emmy Vadnais, a Holistic Occupational Therapist, my healing journey from back injuries that kept me bedridden on and off for 2 years, along with 5 years of learning to walk again. For me, healing means connecting to our true self and embracing all that we are so that we may live life with meaning and joy. I also hope to be a voice for people who experience pain, educating others on the multi-dimensional effects of pain and the resulting struggles.

11:20 Meditation as a Coping Strategy
18:38 Emotions & Pain
23:00 The Balance between Activities & Pain
31:00 BioPsychoSocialSpiritual Components
35:00 Fatigue & Chronic Pain/Illness & the famous Spoon Theory
41:46 Pain & Trauma/PTSD/Panic Attacks
45:00 Gaining a Sense of Control
49:50 Discussing Pain Medication & the Opioid Crisis

You can find more podcasts by Emmy at HolisticOT.
dock leading out to swamp

Pain and the Mind-Body Connection

dock leading out to swamp
 

At one point, I realized that my physical pain had become emotional pain, and the emotional pain further increased my physical pain. A vicious cycle of pain had formed, and my body had become more stuck in its protective state: contracted, tense, and cringing from the slightest touch, while physical and emotional hypersensitivities heightened.

Emotional pain or distress is physical distress; they are one and the same. The more emotionally stressed I feel, the more tense and painful my body feels, as well as the more likely I am to catch a cold. When my mind is more relaxed, so is my body, and my immune system is stronger.

The mind and body mirror each other.

When one is under stress, so is the other. They endure the same experiences at the same time, yet the effects are uniquely expressed in an individual.

A break-up with a loved one may cause emotional depression and literally a physically hurt heart and a sleep disorder. Ongoing emotional anxiety may mentally cause pervasive, negative thoughts and physically cause nausea, irritable bowel syndrome, and high blood pressure. A misaligned spine may cause anxiety and a feeling (“felt sense”) of insecurity, just as the spinal column is insecure. How many times have you felt anxious and irritable to only discover after “checking in with yourself” that you are hungry and your blood sugar is dropping?

Our behavior and our sense of self are also related to our physical and emotional pains. When my body feels insecure and weak, I know that I feel insecure and less confident, and I act insecure by behaving shyly and studying the floor instead of looking at people in the eyes. When the pain is physically intolerable, I feel anxious, I start talking a mile a minute, and I become fidgety and unable to concentrate.

It is empowering when we recognize how challenges and stressors individually affect us, and learn to cope with them. If we do not cope with them but instead, repress our emotions, eventually mental, emotional, and physical complications arise and our well-being deteriorates. Destructive thoughts and emotions can be just as crippling as physical ailments.

Pain is traumatic.

It affects us on many dimensions. Although it is acknowledged that physical pain can lead to depression and anxiety, I also believe that the mere experience of being injured, the experience of a medical procedure, and the memories from each event are traumatic in and of themselves, and may lead to post-traumatic stress.

Due to this inherent link between mind and body, psychological and physical states, I believe both need to be treated in order to achieve recovery and overall well-being. I believe this leads to a more powerful and effective rehabilitation. Healing is the harmonizing of mind and body.

We have a great gift of inherent wisdom mentally and physically within us. Learning this deep wisdom may seem as difficult as learning a completely new language, or at least that is what I found true for myself. We need to be fully aware. There are no separate levels of consciousness or of one’s self as a whole; there are merely different levels of attention. Through inner awareness we can learn what we need to create harmony within our mind and body.

Pigeon Pose

Do You Have Back Pain? It Could Be The Psoas Muscles.

Does your back feel painfully taut with limited mobility, or do you have aching and burning pain in your groin or front thigh? This could be due to taut Psoas Muscles. The so-what? The “So-as”. The psoas muscles extend from each side of the thoracic and lumbar vertebrae to the pelvis, joining here with its buddy, the Iliacus muscle, and then traveling down to insert on the upper leg, or the femur.

This major muscle group acts as a stabilizer to the lower spine and hip joints, and flexes the hip and lumbar spine. When you lift your knee to your chest, walk upstairs, run, bike, or perform sit ups, you are using the psoas muscles.

After my L5-S1 disc herniated, my hips kept rotating out of alignment and one leg became shorter than the other. From the herniated disc, my muscles went into spasms and tightened in a protective state. This included the psoas. These tight muscles were pulling my leg back into the hip socket, causing leg length discrepancy and even more back pain.

Pain, emotional and/or physical tension, back or abdominal surgery, scar tissue, repetitive motions like cycling can all tense the psoas muscles, causing reduced mobility and increased pain in the low back, pelvis, thigh, or knee area. It can also cause increased lumbar curvature (lordosis), irritable bowels. and even constipation. Think of how long the psoas is. It extends over many organs: the intestines, kidneys, liver, and spleen, to name a few. 

An imbalanced or tense psoas can also cause difficulty breathing, making it feel harder to get a full, complete breath. The psoas muscles are one group of muscles with which the diaphragm interlocks, as the diaphragm connects with the lower ribs. Both the psoas and the diaphragm influence core stabilization and proper breathing.

 

Because of its length, its position, and its importance in the body, this group of muscles can reek havoc when it is tight and shortened (or also when it is weak).

Ways To Make Your Psoas Muscles Happy Muscles.

 

1.  Take breaks from sitting. Sitting for prolonged periods of time can tighten the psoas.

2.  Strengthen other core muscles, such as your glutes/butt muscles, so the psoas muscles do not have to overwork. A great exercise is the glute bridge.

3.  Do not overdo crunches and do not have your feet held down when performing sit ups because it adds strain to the psoas. Too many crunches may tighten and shorten muscles and cause spinal compression. Instead, try a variety of abdominal exercises, including planks, squeezing a ball between the thighs, or other exercises where the pelvis remains neutral.

4.  Massage. Manual therapy can help release and lengthen the psoas. Massaging the psoas can be a little painful, but afterwards, it feels great.

5.  Place a pillow under your knees when sleeping on your back. Tight psoas muslces can pull on your back and cause it to arch, but a pillow under your knees will provide some slack to this muscle group and relax your back.

6.  Relax. When you feel stressed, your muscles tense. This also includes the psoas muscles. Imagine tense psoas muscles and how much territory in your body they cover. That creates a lot of tension throughout your abdomen, the core of your body, your back, your pelvis and hips, your legs, down to your knees.

If your psoas muscles are really tight and painful, start with these gentle psoas releases before moving on to yoga poses and stretches for the psoas and hip flexors. Lie down in these positions for five or more minutes while deeply breathing in and out, imaging the deep psoas muscles relaxing, letting go of tension. 

 

person laying on floor with knees bent and lower legs resting on chair

Rest your lower legs on a chair. Relax and breathe. Imagine your breath moving into and out from your deep psoas muscles, bringing them oxygen, relaxing them, and releasing tension from them and down into the floor.​

With bent knees, have knees rest into one another for support. Keep your back flat on the floor. For several minutes, breathe deeply, relaxing and imagining your psoas letting go of tension and lengthening.

Rest your lower leg on your opposite knee. This should feel effortless, not like your are holding up your leg. This position provides slack in your psoas muscles. Relax for several minutes, allowing time for your psoas to relax.

7.  Yoga and Stretching. If you do a lot of biking or running, which requires repetitive hip flexion, try adding in some more activities and stretches that deemphasize hip flexion and emphasize hip extension. Here are some stretches and yoga poses I find helpful to stretch out and lengthen my tight psoas muscles and other hip flexors.

Beginner to Psoas Stretch

Beginner: Lie down with back flat and bring knee to chest with other leg straight on floor.
Intermediate: Bring buttocks to side edge of bed or couch but maintain contact for support. Hang leg off side of bed or couch, with foot touching the ground for support. Do not over arch back. Advanced: Bring buttocks to end of bed or surface, but maintain glute contact on surface for support. Hang leg off of edge of surface without floor to support foot for greater stretch.
Hold stretch for 60 seconds or more. other leg.
* Keep back flat on surface. Do not over arch back.

Lunge

Keep your upper body straight, with your shoulders back. Always engage your core. Step forward with one leg, lowering your hips until knee bent at about a 90-degree angle. Rest hands on knee for support. Back leg should be in 90-degree angle, resting on the floor or straight and slightly internally rotate thigh. Squeeze glutes for added support. Hold 10 to 30 seconds. Repeat other side.

Pigeon Pose

Start on all fours in a table top position. Slide one knee forward toward your hand. Angle your knee to 11 o'clock for the left knee or 2 o'clock for the right knee.Do not overstrain. Slide your other leg back as far as comfortable while keeping your hips square to the floor and slightly internally rotate the thigh of the straightened leg. If your hips are not square, there will be unnecessary force on your back. Squeeze the glutes of this leg for support. Depending on how you feel, you will be upright on your hands while sinking the hips forward and down. To get full release in the hips, breathe and release the belly. Stay in this position anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds or longer. Repeat on other side.

Beginner to Advanced Cobra Pose

Lie down on your stomach. bend your elbows and put your hands flat on the ground even with your chest. Gently squeeze your glutes, then press down and raise your head and upper body, keeping your hips on the floor.
Beginner: Maintain close to a 90 degree bend in your elbows to not over extend your back. Do not look up and strain your neck. Advanced: Fully extend your arms. Hold this position for approximately 10 to 30 seconds

Note: Please do not perform stretches or exercises without first consulting with your doctor.

Source: Jones, Jo Ann. The Vital Psoas Muscle, Connecting Physical, Emotional, and Spiritual Well-Being. CA: North Atlantic Books. (201

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